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Napa Wine Train|Race Claims Survive

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge Tuesday refused to dismiss the Napa Valley Wine Train from discrimination claims filed by a book club, 10 of whose 11 members are black women.

Lead plaintiff Lisa Johnson and the Sistahs on the Reading Edge book club booked reservations on the Napa Valley Wine Train for their club's annual outing on Aug. 22, 2015.

Despite assurances made while making a group reservation, Johnson says, the railroad did not honor the group's seating reservation or assist mobility-restricted members, and forced them to sit in the back of the last car near an L-shaped bar.

Though the book club was no louder than other passengers, Johnson says, railroad staff repeatedly admonished them to be quiet, threatened them with arrest, removed them during a lunchtime stop in St. Helena, and had police question them outside the train for 20 minutes before loading them into a van to be driven back to Napa.

"Shortly after the incident, a comment was posted on the Wine Train Facebook page, which stated in part: '(F)ollowing verbal and physical abuse toward other guests and staff, it was necessary to get our police involved. ... Many groups come on board and celebrate. When those celebrations impact our guests, we do intervene,'" Johnson says in the complaint.

It continues: "The post 'went viral' on the Internet within minutes of being posted, and was read by thousands of people nationwide. ... The entire ordeal was humiliating and distressing for plaintiffs."

Johnson says the book club was singled out because 10 of its members are black, though a group of white men, who were "completely inebriated, boisterous, and extremely loud," were not forced to leave the train, though several passengers complained about them.

The book club sued the Wine Train and its employees for race, gender and disability discrimination, conspiracy, libel, slander, emotional distress bad faith and breach of contract.

The Wine Train responded that the allegations are too vague and do not specifically cite who is accused of doing what. It filed motions to dismiss, to strike some claims, and sought a more definitive statement of a pleading.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson denied the motion for a more definitive statement, granted some but not all motions to dismiss, and granted claims to strike some defendants.

The book club's attorney, Waukeen McCoy, greeted the order as a win, saying the judge saw "no basis to dismiss the claim under Title VI for racial discrimination or the disability claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act."

"We plan to amend the complaint per the judge's order but will also work with the defendants to get the matter resolved," McCoy said in an email.

Henderson said the book club members' first amended complaint include eight pages of "detailed and chronologically organized" allegations as the basis for 10 causes of action, with subsets of allegations for each particular claim.

"Defendants' argument for a more definite statement demonstrates that they understand the nature of each claim, and therefore how to defend against it," Henderson wrote. "It is therefore readily apparent that a motion for a more definite statement is not warranted."

The Wine Train sought dismissal of claims made under Title VI, saying Title VI does not address discrimination based on age or gender, but only race, color and national origin.

Henderson said Johnson et al. acknowledged they erred in stating Title VI claims based on gender and age, asked the court to strike the words or allow it to amend the complaint. He granted the motion to strike, while partly dismissing the claims with leave to amend.

The Wine Train failed, however, to have the court dismiss claims that it benefits from federal funding for flood control.

He denied Johnson's motion for judicial notice of newspaper articles, saying the articles do show the matter was in the public realm, but Johnson wants the court to take them as true factual assertions, which it cannot do.

He gave book club members until Feb. 23 to amend the complaint.

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